On-yomi and Kun-yomi(1) Japanese and a language from the ancient mesopotamia 

Japanese has a very unique reading system as to how you read kanjiOn-yomi (音読み; “the Chinese-borrowed reading”) and kun-yomi (訓読み; “the original Japanese reading”). This kind of phenomenon is very rare, but not necessarily an exclusive feature of Japanese. Dr. Haruhiko Kindaichi, a Japanese renowned linguist, has pointed out that the similar system is found in Akkadian, a language once spoken in the ancient Mesopotamia. To quote his observation:


“In Japanese 春風 can be read as either harukaze or shumpu, while in Korean it is read as Chunfon, a reading borrowed from Chinese. In Japanese春 can be read as shun or haru. […] The thing is that these two readings have nothing in common. This kind of reading system is very rare and nowhere else to be seen in today’s languages. If you go back in time, however, you find one in Asia Minor. In that region once lived a people called Sumerian before common era, who had an exceptional culture. They invented the so-called “cuneiform characters,” which were then exported to the Akkadian Empire, where the people started using them to record their national language.” (Kindaichi 1988, p.28ff.)


Akkadian is a language used in the ancient Mesopotamia, whose speakers have left us with materials written from c. 3500 BCE to the first century BCE. This language also had two different readings of a character; a reading borrowed from a foreign language, and a reading based on their native language. The former corresponds to on-yomi in Japanese, while the latter to kun-yomi. We can infer from this that “one character, two readings” may not be exclusively unique to Japanese, but could be a universal phenomenon. It is interesting that Kindaichi refers to Akkadian as a language that has a similar feature to Japanese.



Kindaichi, Haruhiko (1988) Japanese: New Edition, Volume 2. Iwanami-Shoten.



日本では「春風」と書いて「ハルカゼ」とも「シュンプウ」とも読むが、韓国では「チュンフォン」と読み、これは中国から韓国へ入った読み方だ。「春」という字は、日本では「シュン」とも読むが、「ハル」とも読む。……(中略)……そしてこの、ハル haru、シュン shun のあいだには全く共通点がない。このような言語体系は現在、日本以外にはどこにも見当たらない、大変めずらしいことである。もっとも今の世界にはほかにないが、歴史をさかのぼってみると、紀元前にはあったという。小アジアで紀元前の昔、シュメール人というすぐれた文化を誇った民族があって、楔形文字という文字を使っていた。その文字をアッカド帝国というところで借りて自分の国語の表記に使ったのがその例である。(金田一春彦(1988)『日本語 新版(下)』岩波書店より)